HALEIWA, OAHU (HawaiiNewsNow) - All four life rafts from the two choppers that collided off Oahu's North Shore have been recovered, but rescuers have yet to find any sign of survivors.
The search for the 12 Marines on board the two helicopters continued into its fifth day Tuesday, with Marines combing North Shore beaches for debris, while multiple county, state and federal agencies search for survivors by air and sea.
Navy divers have also been dispatched, and are using sonar technology around the last known position of the two choppers about two miles off Haleiwa. So far, they haven't seen any debris.
The two Marine Corps choppers collided during a routine training mission about 10:40 p.m. Thursday, setting off a massive ocean search-and-rescue effort during one of the biggest swells of the winter season. Low visibility also hampered search efforts.
Ocean conditions are favorable for searching Tuesday, but surf is expected to start rising again Wednesday.
The Coast Guard says there has been no indication that anyone was ever on the life rafts that were recovered.
Still, the Coast Guard said Sunday that it remains hopeful survivors will be found, and in a statement Monday, Coast Guard officials said their goal is to ensure with "absolute certainty we've thoroughly canvassed every location we might find them."
On Saturday, the Coast Guard said it had found debris from the two helicopters in waters off Oahu. High surf has scattered debris across a wide swath of waters off Oahu, from Kahuku to Waianae.
"The debris that's been located is consistent with the aircraft of this type," said Coast Guard Lt. Scott Carr. "I know a lot of people are focused on the debris, but we're really focused on hopefully finding survivors."
Meanwhile, the Marines on Saturday also released the names of the 12 service members who were on board the two helicopters. "Our thoughts and prayers are with the Marines and their families as we continue search and rescue efforts," the Marine Corps said, in a statement.
Coast Guard Capt. Jim Jenkins said the Coast Guard is working in conjunction with the Marines to determine how long to continue searching. Family members will be notified first if the search-and-rescue mission is halted.
From the outset, big surf has complicated an already-tough search for survivors.
"This is probably one of the most difficult search missions I've seen," Carr told reporters Friday. He added, "Our men and women train for this. Our goal is to find survivors."
Both of the CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters had six Marines aboard when they crashed. Authorities said they did not get a distress call from either helicopter.
Witnesses said the collision produced a fireball that lit up the night sky.
"It was like daytime," said Chase Tantog, 21, who was fishing at Chun's Reef when he saw what he thought was a meteor falling from the sky.
"It was just a big fireball coming down," he said. "There was debris, too, on the side, like coming off. Once it hit the water, it just blacked out and then you hear the thunder roar after. It was really loud."
Debris field widespread
Rescuers have encountered debris believed to be from the helicopters across a widening swath of ocean, stretching from Waianae to Kahuku and eight miles offshore. They've asked people to call the Coast Guard at 257-8458 or 257-3023 if they find any debris.
Early on in the search, crews discovered a life raft, but no one was on board and there were no visible flames in the water.
Carr said rough seas are scattering and churning debris. Surf on Oahu's North Shore remains at warning levels.
"The weather is making it very difficult," Carr said on Friday. "Debris is moving things all over the place. It's very difficult to find things right now."
Debris found on land will be taken to the incident command post at Haleiwa Alii Beach Park and will later be moved to Marine Corps Base Hawaii in Kaneohe, said Capt. Timothy Irish, a public information officer with the III Marine Expeditionary Force. Debris found offshore will also be transported to Marine Corps Base Hawaii.
Routine training mission
The Marines on board the two helicopters were conducting a routine night training mission that started from Marine Corps Base Hawaii and was expected to conclude there, Irish said.
They were flying in low-light conditions and using night vision goggles.
Irish said there are normally four people on such training missions, but these missions had two additional training instructors on board each.
Following witness reports of a crash Thursday night, the Coast Guard dispatched a MH-65 Dolphin helicopter and a HC-130 aircraft, both of which arrived on scene shortly after midnight. Two Coast Guard Cutters – the 87-foot Ahi from Maui and the 110-foot Kiska from the Big Island – were also dispatched.
Irish said the Marines have reached out to all of the family members of those on board the helicopters, and are also offering counseling to the larger Marine community in the islands.
"There are a lot of Marine Corps families affected right now and they've got a lot of concerns for their loved ones," he said. "I cannot imagine the feelings those families are going through right now."
With each day, the search area grows. On Friday, crews were focusing their efforts on the North Shore alone; they've now extended the search to the waters off Waianae.
"Anytime you are dealing with a debris field … that's pretty normal that it will move," Carr said. "As you go over time in any search and rescue, the area typically starts to get bigger."
The Honolulu Fire Department -- with help from federal firefighters – along with the U.S. Navy, Hawaii Army National Guard, state Department of Land and Natural Resources and Honolulu Police Department are also assisting in the search. Lifeguards also pitched in, searching within a mile of shore for debris.
A Kaneohe-based HSM-37 Navy attacker helicopter was dispatched along with two Navy destroyers -- the USS John Paul Jones and USS Gridley. Both were replaced by the USS Paul Hamilton on Monday morning.
Witnesses recount collision
Residents up and down the North Shore saw -- or heard -- the collision Thursday night.
Don Williams said the collision produced "two big booms."
"It shook the house," he said. "I couldn't figure out what it was."
Tantog, who was fishing at Chun's Reef, said the fireball in the night sky was so big "I thought the world was going to end."
One woman said she was at Haleiwa Harbor on Thursday night when she saw what she thought was a flare.
"I didn't see it shoot up, I saw when something was coming down."